Stockholm wonder: the Royal Swedish Ballet celebrates 225 years.
Founded in 1773 by King Gustav III, the Royal Swedish Ballet is the third-oldest company in Europe--and one of its least known. After an initial of glory, it suffered an extended era of neglect and, despite periodic visits from August Bournonville from the late 1930s to the 1860s, it languished in the shadow of his Royal Danish Ballet. A turning point was the arrival in 1913 of Michel Fokine, whose productions of Les Sylphides and other ballets hurtled the troupe into the twentieth century.
Among those inspired by the Russian choreographer was Jean Borlin, a talented dancer who created his earliest solos under Fokine's tutelage. In 1920, when Rolf de Mare, a wealthy Swedish collector, formed the Paris-based Ballets Suedois ("Swedish Ballet"), Borlin became the star and resident choreographer of this lively avant-garde company. Like Borlin, most of the dancers, including Carina Ari and Jenny Hasselquist, came from the Royal Swedish Ballet. It took decades for the troupe to recover from the massive hemorrhage of talent.
At the helm from 1953 to 1962, British-born Mary Skeaping worked like a dynamo to restore the company to health. With Sadler's Wells as her model, she stocked the repertory with nineteenth-century classics and important modem works, including George Balanchine's Symphony in C and The Four Temperaments, Leonide Massine's Le Sacre du Printemps, and Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies. (Tudor later created Echoing of Trumpets for the company.) She commissioned works from Birgit Cullberg and other Swedish choreographers, produced The Stone Flower by the Kirov's Yuri Grigorovich, and, inspired by the history that surrounded her, re-created many court ballets and eighteenth-century works.
Erik Bruhn's appointment as artistic director brought American choreographers to the fore. Jerome Robbins staged Les Noces in 1969; the following year Jose Limon set There Is a Time, The Exiles, and Missa Brevis; Glen Tetley, Ricercare; and Dennis Nahat, Brahms Quintet and Process (Ontogeny). During this period, Bruhn added Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet to the company's repertory of full-lengths, produced Balanchine's Serenade, and himself staged Bournonville's Pas de Six from Napoli.
When Swedish choreographer Ivo Cramer became director (1975-80), interest shifted to the continent. He gave Jiri Kylian his first assignment outside of the Netherlands Dance Theater and brought John Cranko's Onegin into the repertory. Under his successors, "classics" (Rudolf Nureyev's Don Quixote, Natalia Makarova's La Bayadere, Frederick Ashton's Cinderella, MacMillan's Manon,) shared the boards with "contemporary" works (John Neumeier's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Peer Gynt; Choo-San Goh's Configurations; William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; Ulysses Dove's Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven) and ballets by various Swedish choreographers. It was a fantastic repertory--on paper--but since few works outlived the tenure of the artistic director who commissioned them, there was little continuity on which to build a tradition or forge the distinctive identity of a major company.
Frank Andersen, its director since 1995, is determined to put the Royal Swedish Ballet on the map. Although born and trained in nearby Denmark, he knew "surprisingly little" about the company before he took the job. Why this should be so is what intrigued him. Since the dancers were good, why had the company been overlooked? We are sitting in his tiny office at the Swedish Royal Opera. An engaging man with an impish grin and the energy of a twenty-five-year-old, Anderson speaks fluent if slightly idiosyncratic English. "We have some talent here, which not many people know about. And that I intend to do something about." During a ten-year stint as head of the Royal Danish Ballet, he had organized a Bournonville festival that brought critics to Copenhagen from all over Europe and North America. Perhaps he could perform a similar feat in Stockholm. So the idea of the RSB 225th Jubilee Festival was born.
The goal of the festival, as Andersen has conceived it, is to bring the company into the international dance family. Andersen himself is immensely cosmopolitan. He has friends in every dance capital, and he recalls the excitement of seeing works by Kylian, Neumeier, and Maurice Bejart for the first time while still a student. Neumeier remains a favorite, and his evening-length Mahler's Third Symphony, which the company--the only one besides Neumeier's Hamburg Ballet to dance it--premiered this February, will be performed in June at the festival. Another local season premire, MacMillan's Mayerling, will also be given, and it, too, represents something of a coup for Andersen: Until now, only Britain's Royal Ballet has performed it.
The festival opens with a full-evening program of Ballets Suedois rarities. Since Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer reconstructed Skating Rink a few years ago for Zurich Ballet, interest in Borlin's choreography has grown, especially in Europe. In addition to Skating Rink, which has a striking backdrop by Fernand Leger, Hodson and Archer will stage two other ballets after Borlin: Within the Quota, a tale of immigrant-makes-good with music by Cole Porter and designs by the American painter Gerald Murphy; and Derviches, an all-male work to Alexander Glazunov's Dance of Salome. The program is completed by El Greco, set to a score by Desire Emile Inghelbrecht (who conducted for the Suedois company and married its ballerina, Carina Ari) and with decor inspired by the painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
The revival of El Greco is by Ivo Cramer, now the grand old man of Swedish dance. He will set what he calls his interpretation of the ballet in the "free dance" style of the 1930s, which he believes is closer to the Fokine-inspired idiom of Borlin's original work. Cramer also created a new narrative, since the old one had been considered unintelligible.
Born in Goteborg in 1921, Cramer was initially drawn to modern dance, studying with Sigurd Leeder and working with Birgit Cullberg, who had herself studied with Kurt Jooss. In 1946, with Cullberg, Cramer formed his first company, Swedish Dance Theatre. Folk and religious themes had long interested him, and his 1957 version of The Prodigal Son, which had music by Hugo Alfven, reconceived the Biblical story as a Swedish folk tale. Today, in the small town where he lives near the Norwegian border, Cramer directs an amateur group that dances in church services. It is easy to see why Cramer finds the theme and "ecstatic" music of El Greco so appealing.
He will also be represented at the festival as an authority on eighteenth-century dance and choreographer of a number of period ballets. Two of these re-creations are to be performed this June at the miraculously preserved Drottningholm Court Theatre. Built in 1766, this living museum was "rediscovered" in 1921 by theater historian Agne Beijer with all its stage machinery, lighting fixtures, and some forty sets intact. Drottningholm became a center for early dance under Skeaping (a working partner of Cramer's for many years), with summer performances of period ballets and music played on period instruments. No more magical setting for his harlequinades can be imagined.
Except, perhaps, Confidencen. This jewel of a theater, originally built as a riding school, was converted in 1753 by Queen Lovisa Ulrika (the cultivated sister of Frederick the Great) into a court theater for plays, comic operas, and divertissements. Used in the nineteenth century as a royal hunting lodge and then forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1976 by Kjersten Dellert, a retired opera singer, who has spent the last twenty years restoring it. Now a working theater, with a repertory of eighteenth-century ballets by Cramer and Regina Beck-Friis, another of Skeaping's collaborators, Confidencen will offer a special program for invited festival guests.
Although the present Royal Opera House, with its plush-and-gold hall and mirrored foyer, opened in 1898, it houses archives that go back to the eighteenth century. Stored partly at the theater and partly at the Drottningholm Theatre Museum, they are amazingly complex. Archivist Inger Mattsson shows me the daily posters--complete with credits and the names of principal dancers--that chart the history of the Royal Swedish Ballet virtually since its founding. I find its first Coppelia, staged in 1896 by Max Glasemann, and its first Bournonville ballet, Hemkomsten, mounted in 1838. Mattsson introduces me to Borje Edh, the former director of the theater's costume shop. Over eighty years old, he has rescued innumerable costumes from dusty corridors and forgotten bins, and now organizes exhibitions of his treasures. He shows me pictures of a few: an eighteenth-century harlequin costume; a Swiss peasant costume from Bournonville's Tyroleans, performed in 1839; and a dress worn by ten-year-old soprano Jenny Lind. Production books, costume designs, contracts, clippings, correspondence, yearbooks, financial records, all in excellent order and virtually complete--this is a treasure trove, and practically unknown outside of Sweden.
Amazingly, Stockholm also has another first-rate dance archive: the Dansmuseet, or Dance Museum, founded by Rolf de Mare and now directed by Erik Naslund (who has written books on Carina Ari and Birgit Cullberg and curated exhibitions on Leon Bakst and Anna Duncan). It contains a remarkable collection of material about Ballets Suedois--posters, programs, press books, music manuscripts (including Inghelbrecht's score for El Greco, which was never published), pictures, and designs galore. There are also smaller collections, such as the Bakst Collection, where I discovered a letter from Victor Dandre, Anna Pavlova's husband, written in 1917, asking Bakst about possible subjects for a "Hebrew" ballet. The ballerina had been reading the Old Testament and, apart from the story of Ruth and Naomi, found nothing suitable. Would Bakst please advise?
Very much an internationalist, Andersen has not neglected local dancemakers. This spring, he presented an evening of new works by four Nordic choreographers--Ingun Bjornsgaard from Norway, Jorma Uotinen from Finland, Anna Laerkesen from Denmark, and Orjan Andersson from Sweden--at the House of Dance, a venue for modem dance. Moreover, in Par Isberg, a principal dancer nearing the end of his career, he has discovered that rarity--a "house choreographer" of talent.
Isberg's Nutcracker, to be shown during the festival, is a charming and genuinely original version of the ballet, inspired by the children's stories of Swedish writer Elsa Beskow. Working closely with Naslund, Isberg moved the action to rural Sweden and made the children, Petter and Lotta, orphans, whose dream of having parents comes true in the grand pas de deux. There are delightful Swedish touches in Act I, such as the tile stove in the parlor and a nutcracker made of straw; among the tree decorations that come to life in Act II are snowmen, gingerbread cookies, and three foolish sleepwalking virgins.
Andersen, a Bournonville authority, has yet to set a work by the Danish master on the Royal Swedish Ballet. Still, every Wednesday afternoon, he conducts a Bournonville class for the company's younger dancers, few of whom have studied outside of Sweden. His wife, Eva Kloborg, a veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet, also teaches, and among the other guests from abroad who have regular teaching stints with the company is Espen Giljane, a Norwegian-born former member of New York City Ballet. A performance by students of the company's affiliated Swedish Ballet School is also scheduled for the festival.
For a company director, Andersen seems remarkably interested in history. One of his first acts as director was to bring back Gunilla Roempke, a former principal dancer and artistic director of the company, to head what Andersen calls his "team." Now a dance historian as well as a ballet mistress, Roempke is a mine of information about the company and will lecture about its eighteenth-century history at the symposium to be held in tandem with the festival. The symposium, which has an international roster of speakers, will cover the entire history of the Royal Swedish Ballet. Also scheduled is a tour of the Royal Opera archives and the Drottningholm Theatre Museum.
When I ask him about the gala that will conclude the festival, Andersen turns mum. There will be stars, he tells me, though he won't say who, and some choreographic rarities. Tudor's Echoing of Trumpets, perhaps? He only smiles enigmatically. "You'll have to come back and see for yourself," he says. "After the festival, we'll no longer be Europe's best-kept secret."
RELATED ARTICLE: MEN OF THE SWEDISH BALLET
The Royal Swedish Ballet celebrates its 225th anniversary in 1998. Not content to rest on its laurels, the company continues to set new goals and meet new challenges even in this celebratory year. The company began its current season in November, presenting one of the strongest and most difficult programs in its history (including Mayerling, Mahler's Third Symphony, and Ballet Suedois repertory). Meeting critical acclaim with this program, the troupe demonstrates strength and poise and shows itself to be in top physical shape.
The RSB boasts an outstanding lineup of principal male dancers. All share equally impressive ability and dynamic stage presence, but in performance, each dancer reveals special talents that convey a distinctly unique personality.
Brendan Collins is the only non-Swede in the company. Born in Ontario, he trained at the National Ballet School in Toronto and became a member of the National Ballet of Canada under Erik Bruhn. Two years later he joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, becoming a principal within a year. Collins was "discovered" at the 1990 Jackson International Ballet Competition, by Heinz Sporli, director of Basel Ballet and artistic director of Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf. Collins promptly moved to Europe, becoming a principal for the Basel company in 1990 and for Deutsche Oper in 1991.
Collins joined the RSB as a principal in 1992. He has danced important roles in major works by such choreographers as Kenneth MacMillan, Nils Christe, Ulysses Dove, Rudolf Nureyev, Mats Ek, Paul Taylor, and Jiri Kylian. Collins has also been a guest artist with companies throughout Europe and North America. His own innovative choreography has been performed at workshops in Stockholm and by Ballet Jorgen in Toronto.
A native of Stockholm, Jan-Erik Wikstrom took his first dance steps at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and continued his education at the Swedish Ballet School. After graduation in 1987, he joined the RSB. In 1993 he was named principal based on his remarkable technique, impeccable timing, and unique ability to personalize each of his characters. The recipient of numerous honors, Wikstrom won the prestigious Philip Morris Ballet Flower Award in 1995 (this most important dance honor in Sweden consists of $7,500 awarded each year to the country's outstanding dancer).
Wikstrom has performed leading roles in major ballets, including Basilio in Nureyev's Don Quixote. In his review of that performance, British dance critic Clement Crisp referred to Wikstrom as "the young Nureyev." In addition to his engagement with the RSB, he has been a guest artist in New Zealand, Italy, Hungary, and Japan.
Goran Svalberg's talent was recognized at an early age while he was attending the Royal Swedish Ballet School. In fact, he was accepted by the RSB even before his graduation in 1983. He became a soloist in 1986 and a principal in 1991. His impressive list of performances at the RSB includes Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Don Quixote. Among his many scholarships and awards, he was the first Swedish dancer to receive the Philip Morris Ballet Flower Award in 1994. Svalberg has been a guest artist with several European ballet companies, including Bejart Ballet in Lausanne and Deutsche Oper in Borlin.
Hans Nilsson was born of Swedish parents in La Jolla, California. He began his dance studies in Philadelphia and continued with the Swedish Ballet School when his family returned to its native Sweden in 1977. After graduation in 1982, Nilsson was immediately accepted by the RSB, becoming a soloist in 1987 and a principal in 1990. He is only the second dancer ever to have been appointed Royal Principal Dancer by the king of Sweden.
Nilsson has performed principal roles in full-evening ballets including Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, La Bayadere, and Romeo and Juliet. He has also danced several Balanchine works as well as dances by Ulysses Dove, Mats Ek, Paul Taylor, and Jose Limon.
A student of the Royal Swedish Ballet School and a graduate of the Swedish Ballet School in 1986, Anders Nordstrom joined the RSB that very year. In 1991, he caught the eye of John Neumeier and moved to Germany, where he danced with Hamburg Ballet for three years. On his return to the RSB in 1994, Nordstrom was named principal. Like his associates in the RSB, he has, received the Philip Morris Ballet Flower Award.
Nordstrom has danced principal roles in major full-evening ballets for the RSB. In addition, he has danced for many noted international choreographers such as Neumeier, William Forsythe, Rudi van Dantzig, Par Isberg, Lar Lubovitch, Mats Ek, Nils Christe, Natalia Makarova, and Birgit Cullberg. His dance studies have taken him to Paris, London, Copenhagen, Cannes, New York, and Rome. He has also performed as a guest artist in many of these cities.
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|Title Annotation:||includes related article on the men of Swedish ballet|
|Article Type:||Cover Story|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1998|
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